Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Intimacy at the Movies


A couple of weeks ago I was two-thirds done with the New York Film Festival. Certified Copy and Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives were mind-blowing, especially the former, I loved Another Year, and my favorite, Mysteries of Lisbon, was so good I'd sit through all four-and-a-half hours again. (The camerawork reminded me of Ophuls. I am still trying to write that one up.) It was glorious, it was rejuvenating.

But my old-movie habit wasn't being fed. Sometime around the two-week mark the withdrawal became too much and I posted on Facebook and Twitter that I was going to dig up a pre-1960 movie and watch it to the last frame. Maybe some followers thought I was being cute about how much I needed to do this. I was as serious as All Quiet on the Western Front.

And I watched Ivy. And it was good. So good I started to wonder if this was simple addiction. It did feel uncomfortably like I was one of those people who went to sleep in Shreveport and woke up in Abilene. "Come on, Oscar nominee from 1934, let's you and me get drunk." But surely nobody ever wound up in rehab because they couldn't stop quoting Bette Davis movies. I can, in fact, stop anytime I like. Don't look at me like that. I have a Netflix copy of Zodiac right there on my dressing table, you just can't see it because it's under the eyeshadow palette. I've had it three weeks and haven't watched it yet, but I'm telling you I could watch it right now if I felt like it and if my daughter weren't already downstairs watching the 1940 Blue Bird. I just don't want to. I'll watch Zodiac this weekend. Right now I need to keep watching old movies, I have too much else going on to quit something that isn't harming me anyway. Hey, did anybody else notice some benevolent soul has posted Hold Back the Dawn on Youtube?

I'm not going to quit--I don't have a problem--but I often have stretches of wondering why I do this, aside from the prestige of attending swank parties and announcing that I blog about movies a lot of people have never heard of, let alone seen. And I have had a small moment of clarity.

When I find a blog I like, I often read through the archives, and I was going through Tom Shone's blog, Taking Barack to the Movies. He writes mostly about contemporary movies and some politics, in his graceful and very witty style, and I love it even when he's making me feel guilty for not watching Zodiac. I found a post called "Best Films of the 1930s." Not that I am necessarily more interested in that topic than Sam Rockwell or anything, but I read it, and pulled up right here:

The films I most prize are the ones that look normal, and sound normal, and feel normal, but unfurl with the sinuous, sneaky logic of a dream. Movies that cast a spell. I don't mean surrealism — not a fan. I mean a big-budget studio picture that despite the involvement of hundreds of people, from money-grubbing producers to eagle-eyed costumiers, seems to have bloomed from the unconscious of a drowsy Keats...I recently had a spirited debate with my friend Nat about my theory that one cannot know and enjoy a picture made before you were born with quite the same casual intimacy of a film made in your lifetime. That older film can be 100 times better but it still doesn't breathe the same air you do in the same way that even a cruddy picture produced yesterday can.

Interesting. Absolutely bloody fascinating, in fact, because it's the precise opposite of the way I react to new versus old movies. It is this:


Some contemporary films do cast a marvelous spell for me; Avatar, the aforementioned NYFF films. I want to see more that can do the same. But if I want a film to speak to my most secret Siren soul, something to forget my life and the venue and possibly even the day of the week and whoever is sitting next to me, I'm looking at immensely better odds if I go pre-1960. Casual intimacy for me usually comes in black and white or Technicolor. Or sepia. Or Color by Deluxe. I've been intimate with sepia and Deluxe.

I don't want to argue (much), I want to attach an endnote. Clearly, it's true for Tom. Today we had coffee and I told him I was thinking about writing this and he's already got a lovely, lucid response right here. (This has got to be a personal best in terms of slow composition. I am now so slow that someone responds before I post.) His observation is probably true for most moviegoers. A chart based on the moviewatching feelings of the public as a whole might look like this:



    Item 1. Percentage of People Who Feel Casual Intimacy With a Cruddy Picture Produced Yesterday

    Item 2. Percentage of People Who Feel Casual Intimacy With a Movie That's 100 Times Better But Is Older Than They Are

    Item 3. Percentage of People Who Feel Casual Intimacy With Anything That Was Shot Before 1960 and/or Has Bette Davis


But the Siren is smack in the middle of Item 3, with most of her patient readers, god love 'em.

What is with us?

There is a certain Charlie Brown impulse at work for me, definitely. The Social Network is all over the Web, so I don't feel a need to write it up when every major critic and at least a dozen highly talented bloggers got there first. But see this one over here, gathering dust on IMDB with just two cursory external reviews? Not enough people are watching it. This movie needs me, Linus.

I hope nobody brings up nostalgia. I realize I am touchy on this issue, but gad I hate having that word attached to my movie tastes. Here's the moment from my girlhood when I realized nostalgia was bunk. I had just watched some damp-eyed TV documentary about this great swingin' party that I missed called the 1960s. And I said something to Mom along the lines of "Gee, you must have loved the 1960s, it looks like so much more fun than right now." And Mom (she might not even remember this) looked me in the eye and said, "What I remember about the '60s is that every time I got to liking a musician he died. And every time I got to thinking here's a person who can make the world a better place, somebody went out and shot him."

Nostalgia is for people who don't read much history, I think.

I could blame my parents, and have, like when Dennis brought up early viewing a few months back. They left me alone with the TV and gateway drugs like Busby Berkeley and John Ford and Vincente Minnelli and Shirley Temple (is Alida done with that one yet? OK, she's still watching). I could watch anything I wanted if it was old, but if I wanted to go to a current movie, my mother in particular was convinced that explicit sex or excessive screen violence would warp my mental development. See Raging Bull at too tender an age and the next thing you know I'd be under the patio torturing chipmunks or something. I need hardly add that this wasn't ironclad reasoning by my mother. I would watch the original Scarface or Busby Berkeley pushing the camera under the chorus girls' legs and believe me, I got it. My father was a great deal more laissez-faire; when I was about 12 years old he caught me carefully dog-earing the dirty parts of Lady Chatterley's Lover and all I got was a couple of raised eyebrows and "Time for dinner." But when they were deciding what I could go see at the local cinema he deferred to Mom. I'm pretty sure that I am one of the only film writers in captivity who didn't see an R-rated movie until they were actually, chronologically 17 years old.

Result was that I grew up watching old movies and thinking this was the way movies were supposed to look, lush or spare, shadowy or sparkling, the camera lingering or gliding and no such thing as acne or pores. And this was how a movie was supposed to sound, resonant, highly individual voices speaking wonderful dialogue against the gentle sonic hiss of the soundtrack, a score trailing the action like a cloud of perfume. Without those things, I can still be enthralled. But sometimes the lack of them is a small barrier to intimacy. "I see you have pores. Gosh no darling, of course it doesn't matter. I've seen them before. Is that a lamp on the side table, sweetness? You know, if we switch it on, we'll have light coming from three points…"

As usual, I wind up going to my commenters for the real insight. There's the friend who said simply, "There's something in the rhythms of these movies that's in tune with your own." There's David Ehrenstein, who maintains that "the 30s, not the 70s, was the great period for American commercial filmmaking," citing James Whale, Dorothy Arzner and George Cukor as directors doing genuinely experimental work. And there's Arthur S., who once remarked here that it isn't nostalgia if what you're watching is actually more daring and more radical than what's playing at the multiplex. There's an overarching style to classic cinema, but within it you can see astonishing variation and innovation, like poets ringing changes on sonnets or terza rima.

It is, essentially, an aesthetic preference like any other, one that was probably imprinted early by the circumstances of my childhood. Which brings me to my own children, now safely asleep. They watch a lot of Pixar, which is fine--Up and Wall*E? Brilliant. Spell-casters for sure. And heavily influenced by classic Hollywood. I haven't watched that many old movies with my kids. At ages seven and four they are already more in tune with popular culture than Mom. That's good in a lot of ways. Dragging Astaire and Rogers into everyday conversation didn't exactly make me queen of the Alabama schoolyard. Maybe I should just let my brood continue like that.

Fat chance. I'm ordering Chaplin at Keystone for them, and then I'm going to bed.

63 comments:

Emm said...

I think I also fall into category 3. I'd rather watch an old film (preferably starring Jean Arthur) than anything currently available in a cinema. Strangely, I haven't grown up watching old movies, but started falling in love with them four years ago when I was about 13.

I think the un-ratedness of them attracted me at first, as I wasn't allowed to watch PG-13 or R-rated films. (And I'm still not, which is fine by me!) Even so, my mother still wonders if it's healthy for me to enjoy any film involving gunplay. I have great hopes that she's finally reforming however. Her favorite 60's TV shows kills off quite a few people every week.

Anyhow, I very much enjoy reading your magnificent blog!

Gio' Crisafulli said...

First of all... I am shocked to see the Siren referring to herself in the first person. If you've done it before I guess I haden't noticed. Maybe this post was simply that personal.

Most of all... as breathtaking as Michelangelo and Caravaggio were in their own times, they were well aware of the work and perspective of Giotto. As electrifying as Michael Jackson was to fans all over the world, he obsessed with the work of James Brown and Fred Astair. As widely admired as Michael Chabon and Jonahtan Franzen may be in this last decade, they have now doubt read all of Fitzgerald and Hemmingway.

The past, simply put, is a treasure trove. Being steeped in such rich cultural history as is available to everyone in today's modern, multiplatformed information age only makes one's appreciation or criticsm for the contemporary more full and alive and multi-dimensional.

My complements to you and also to Dennis Cozzalio for making the concerted effort to rear your own home-grown young people with the experience and appreciation of cinema's past. That is how, in any area of life, one can better observe and shape the present and the future.

And plainly... if you're not interested in movies before your own age, you're depriving yourself of a lot of GREAT experiences.

Ryan Kelly said...

"Nostalgia is for people who don't read much history, I think."

I don't have much else to add to this observation except that I love it. Every generation has had its fair share of problems, more than their fair share in some cases. This idyllic version of times passed - things were so simple then and they're so complex now - is aggravating and trivializing.

I'm fascinated by genre/era hounds, but I'm just not like that. Not to say I don't have a fondness for your chosen era, but no more than any other, though I recognize that "craving" for old movies that you speak of - sometimes you just want to see stars with improbable names, styled hair, great costumes, and perfect diction. But I disagree, in part, with what David said about the '30s being a greater era than the '70s - to me, the best thing about loving movies is that you don't have to pick and choose what to appreciate. Though I agree that the '70s, great time in American movies though it was, shouldn't necessarily be what we automatically cite as the greatest period in American movies - I think it speaks to a relatively narrow conception of art, honestly, that it must be "liberated" and "angry" and "counter-cultural" to be of any value.

Peter Nellhaus said...

It's not quite the same for me, but I occasionally watch older films, especially from Warner Brothers, to remind me of what hooked me in the first place. Part of my development came from the original film archives for curious children, late night and overnight broadcast television. I use to get up to watch Busby Berkeley musicals at something like 4 AM on Saturday (or was it Sunday?) with the volume very low, and yes, had a crush on Ruby Keeler.

My mother, who encouraged me to see Seven Brides for Seven Brothers at a special matinee when I was in junior high, was also the one to pull me out of high school so I could attend the critics' screening of Midnight Cowboy.

Arthur S. said...

A lot of the issues with watching old films bearing nostalgia is tied ironically to the fact that cinema is a young art form. Like with painting when people see Rembrandt or Vermeer or Velazquez they aren't necessarily going to say that they are interested in "old paintings" or with literature among readers, as Godard pointed out, reading Dickens and Flaubert is no big deal but seeing Griffith is. The fact that cinema is the closest to reality means that people are more sensitive to changes in time and confronting points of interest from older films to contemporary times cannot necessarily be a uplifting thing for society unless it's packaged as nostalgia. The exception of course is the 70s where GODFATHER is kind of accepted as the national epic despite not being uplifting or nostalgic, people see it for the acting and star power but the actors aren't stars like the old Hollywood.

The old Russian formalists said that great works of art always have "strangeness", the element by which it always feel fresh and different each time across successive generations. That's true of films, BRINGING UP BABY and MY MAN GODFREY are plain weirder than most comedies today. And Preston Sturges remains astoundingly modern. Even IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE! is a really amazing and powerful film rather than some friendly nostalgic Christmas movie it became tagged with later(needless to say it tanked at the box-office in its day).

At the local Mumbai Film Festival which ended today, I saw CERTIFIED COPY too. It played yesterday. There was a big cheer and clap when Juliette Binoche's name came and a cheer, a clap and a whistle when "Un film par Abbas Kiarostami" followed La Binoche's credit. I also saw ''Bright Star'' though mostly I was more interested in the classic Japanese films they were showing. I am deeply depressed I missed Oliveira's ''Strange Case of Angelica'' though, I wanted to see a film of his in the big screen for a while now. I had to help a pal of mine move into a new place and we got delayed and I missed it.

Ryan Kelly said...

A lot of the issues with watching old films bearing nostalgia is tied ironically to the fact that cinema is a young art form. Like with painting when people see Rembrandt or Vermeer or Velazquez they aren't necessarily going to say that they are interested in "old paintings" or with literature among readers, as Godard pointed out, reading Dickens and Flaubert is no big deal but seeing Griffith is.

Arthur, I am going to print this out and hang it on my wall. Great insight.

The Siren said...

Emm, blogger Tonio Kruger once remarked that there wasn't nearly enough Jean Arthur around here and he's right. She's marvelous. I think we have the same mother. Mom must be leading a double life.

Glo, I have used first person before, in my post about my mother-in-law and also once when I was writing about What Molly Haskell Means to Me (a LOT). But yes, it's unusual. I'm not sure why I made this choice. Maybe I just didn't want the distance of third person. Your observations remind me of an acting teacher I had, who was always reminding us of what we owed the playwright. "He knows his Milton, he knows his Shakespeare, he knows his Shaw...that is, if he's ANY GOOD."

Ryan and Peter, I think you're roughly under Item 2, where a lot of film bloggers would belong, enchanted by what's great from the past. I'm flummoxed at the notion of leaving school to see Midnight Cowboy. My mother would have done that right around the time she voted for Nixon.

Arthur, I saw Strange Case of Angelica at the NYFF and it was lovely, though it didn't make quite the impact on me of the ones I named. I love the idea of people in Mumbai applauding Binoche and Kiarostami. Now that's the power of current cinema.

Arthur S. said...

I love the 30s and 70s, though I prefer early 30s to the rest of the decade and over all of the 70s(which is still great). For me the 50s is the creative peak of American cinema, and a singular consistent period of great innovative film-making that people still haven't fully appreciated, James Harvey's book notwithstanding(it dedicates only a single mention to Frank Tashlin, as key to that period and as great a talent as Douglas Sirk).

What's interesting is that the 50s is regarded as a low period in American culture being directly pre-feminist and pre-Civil Rights yet a time of prosperity and cultural stability and the mood of the American movies is singularly pessimistic. Even MGM musicals like IT'S ALWAYS FAIR WEATHER(Groucho Marx's favourite film as per David E.) started belting out the blues. Whereas the 30s, during the Depression and the New Deal, is full of life and exuberance and energy. Even Hawks' SCARFACE, although about gangsters is really brimming with energy and the gangsters die with grand style. Even DODSWORTH, a serious drama about a failing marriage, feels positive.

Niamhy said...

Definitely a number 3 girl here!

I'm completely open to watching modern films-I'm an all-round movie geek, and try to go to the cinema whenever I can, I just find that classic films have more thought put into the creation and all together have a better...atmosphere about them (this sentence probably makes no sense whatsoever to anyone but me!).

Love your blog, by the way!

The Siren said...

Arthur, I think Tom agrees with you about the 50s--he did a bunch of decade posts and remarked that the 1950s was an incredibly rich decade, and it was. I do agree with David about the 30s vs the 70s (although I want them both; I like the 70s more than my readers may realize). But I think there's something in his remark for even people who disagree to latch onto, namely that the New Hollywood, smashing the studio system, wasn't the only revolutionary decade for Hollywood filmmaking.

Niamhy, thanks and welcome. And citing atmosphere makes perfect sense to me; atmosphere is a huge part of what the studios were creating. And I miss it when I don't have it, or when the atmosphere is putting me off.

DavidEhrenstein said...

I'd like to encourage you to take Zodiac down off the shlef and giev it look, Siren. Fincher generally tricks his films out with all manner of gimmicks btu this doesn't have one. It's pure storytelling in a refreshingly old-fashioned way. It didn't make much of a box office impact, I suspect, because when it was released moviegeors thought it was just another slasher flick. It isn't. There are some murders at the beginning -- viewed in passing quite glancingly in non "torture porn" ways. The film's real business is detective work. With three (count'em) detectives. It starts with Mark Ruffalo as the police detective in charge of the case. He runs into a dead end as the killer's trail grows cold. At that point Robert Downey Jr. takes over as a newspaper reporter. He goes further than Ruffalor but again hits a wall. THEn Jake Glynnehal, as a newswriter at the desk next to Downey's, takes up the hunt. He gets this close in a climactic scene that without recourse to tricks of any kind will leave you breathless.

All this, mind you, takes place at a time when computers and cell phones have yet to be invented. Jake is always running off to the library to look things up, and scrambling madly for change to make calls from phone booths. Really fascinating.

Gloria said...

Well, I was only able to watch a few films "above my age" before I was 18, the reason being ushers asked to produce an ID card if you looked too young.

Local Cine-clubs had a more loose policy (I clearly remember being allowed to watcj a screening of "adult film" Annie Hall... And I was wearing my schoolgirl uniform!). Also there was little or no control in the film theatres of the barrio, but those were dangerous places for a young girl: one might have to change seats during the film many times if a dirty old man was nearby looking for victims.

As for modern film, maybe because most of my influential film watching was through Black and White TV, or repertoire cinemas & cine clubs, I grew fond of old cellulloid, and have the opinion that most cinema done after the 60s is dead from the waist down.

It is a personal theory, but I think that movies lost "it" as the directors who started their careers shooting silent movies dissapeared or retired.

Vanwall said...

Wonderfully incisive post.

I have a cinematic viewing past that's similar, my parents had no use for the many films they deemed corrupting, so I had to make my own way into the contemporary film world. That left the older B&W and color films that I could see on TV as the most influential on my early film interests. This meant heavy doses of silents, noir, and melos, so that's why I am like I am.

I'm decidedly in the mid-to-right-hand column, if only because my viewing started before 1960. I always saw film history like a skewed speed of light chart: originally things were getting faster and more innovative, and as time passed they began slowing down, less filmic; hopefully there's an FTL option out there, as it's getting close to hitting the wall in the realm of basic movie inventions, it's more technical now. That's not to belittle the past technical inventions, they can be astonishingly modern-looking if done well, it's all in tricking the eye, after all - Urusevsky in "The Cranes are Flying" used very careful hand-held camera movement that was hard to duplicate until the Steadycam was invented; I couldn't figure it out the first time I saw it, but it was something from the past that was at least as good as the present, which re-inforced my view of older movies: they had it all, if not in one or two films, but spread over many, many films. And just seeing Technicolor - enough said. I admit, I watch contemporary films with a jaundiced eye, I'm afraid, and I hope for the best, but gimme a good B&W noir or a melodrama anyday.

Many has been the Monday, after a rainy weekend, say, where indoors was a haven of classic films, not all the best, by any means, but it's another world that is hard to leave for the present sometimes, not out of nostalgia, but out of love.

Tom Block said...

>For me the 50s is the creative peak of American cinema, and a singular consistent period of great innovative film-making that people still haven't fully appreciated

Roger that one. Temperamentally I may feel closer to the movies of the '70s (my formative years)--though I’m not even sure of that one anymore, and I for sure think the list of certified classics from the ’70s is a lot, lot shorter than I used to. But the '50s, which are usually treated like America's zombie decade, were a mind-blowing time in American arts, and in movies all the fruits of the studio system got taken up by a Justice League of visual storytellers: Ford, Nick Ray, Hitchcock, Fuller, Kazan, Minnelli, Donen-Kelly, Mann, Karlson, Sirk, Dassin, Boetticher, Aldrich, Wyler, Kubrick, Lang, Siegel, Wilder, Laughton, Mackendrick, Hawks...Plus all there were all those overseas guys. The Big Heat, The Band Wagon, The Earrings of Madame de..., I Vitelloni, Pickup on South Street, The Naked Spur, The Golden Coach, Rear Window, The Wages of Fear, Senso, Voyage to Italy, French Cancan, On the Waterfront, Sansho the Bailiff, La Strada, Johnny Guitar, and the Seven Goddam Samurai—I mean, that's just a single two-year period. If movies ever have another cornucopia like that one, I’ll eat everybody’s hat.

Nora said...

Having gone to sleep in Shreveport and awakened in Abilene on more than one occasion, I tend to mix nostalgia with history. I have no problem with my yearning for a simpler time while understanding the sometimes harsher reality that was and is life. It is, possibly, a benefit of old age. I treasure the films of the ‘20s, ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s. I start to twitch in the ‘60s and my cutoff year is 1972 (and anyone who actually knows me, knows why). However I have continued my cinematic journey through the last decades, sometimes kicking and screaming, in an attempt to keep up with the younger members of the family as well as my associates. And they in turn have, sometimes grudgingly, allowed me to introduce pre-code films to them.

I blest the new technology and TCM while joyfully remembering the days we taped a plastic sheet of green, red and blue over the screen so we could have color television.

Nothing, however, will ever replace Saturdays at the Circle with a double feature, a serial AND a cartoon.

Cliff Aliperti said...

As someone who makes a living as a peddler of nostalgia ... I absolutely agree with what you say! In fact to come closest to putting a finger on why I prefer the old to the new, and this extends beyond the realm of classic movies, I find it's very often finding that people then were at heart the same as people now. It's that sameness drawing across the decades which draws me in and adds that little bit of amazement that a classic usually carries over a modern. Oh the peripherals are always different, but the people perform the same and that's what drives up the interest factor here--what would I do thrown into this otherwise strange pre-code Depression setting? There it likely is up on the screen!

Of course if you ask me why I like so many older historical dramas, well, you've got me there!

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

"Result was that I grew up watching old movies and thinking this was the way movies were supposed to look, lush or spare, shadowy or sparkling, the camera lingering or gliding and no such thing as acne or pores. And this was how a movie was supposed to sound, resonant, highly individual voices speaking wonderful dialogue against the gentle sonic hiss of the soundtrack, a score trailing the action like a cloud of perfume. Without those things, I can still be enthralled. But sometimes the lack of them is a small barrier to intimacy."

If I could say it better than this, I would.

I saw hundreds of old movies on television as a child, so they became the norm and modern films at the theater were an acquired taste. Your theme of intimacy is an interesting one. I think modern films make me feel alienated. I don't know about these people, and I don't care about them.

I agree with Emm. I'd have to say I care deeply about Jean Arthur.

Beveridge D. Spenser said...

In response to Arthur S. who mentions that cinema is a young form - I learned a lovely word: INCUNABULA. It means, "From the cradle". It usually refers to the earliest printed documents, from the Gutenburg Bible to ~100 years later.

I can't say what the boundary is for cinematic incunabula is, perhaps we are still in it (first 100 years?).

I love the movies, and thought you might like the word.

fatbottmdgrl said...

I started watching old movies in my teens. A channel out of Phildelphia would show them on Sundays and my idea of a perfect Sunday was smelling Mom's dinner cooking and watching 2 or 3 of these movies in a row. Now my favorite channel is TCM. I buy old movies when I find them lurking on discount racks. I adore Katherine Hepburn, Barbara Stanwyck, Bette Davis, Norma Shearer, Ginger Rogers, etc etc.
Cary Grant, they just don't make men like him anymore, Robert Mitchum, William Powell, and all those men who were really "men".

And YES, teach the kiddies about those lovely old movies, start them on Shirley Temple, maybe some Little Rascal's shorts, the Lone Ranger.

I love old movies for the fact that they do take you away from the everyday world. While there may be violence, it is not near as graphic as what you see today. And you had to have a STORY behind the violence. A WHY to it, not just violence for violence's sake. Sex, on the other hand, while that always sold, maybe back then they just disguised it better.

I will watch old movies over modern ones anytime.

Tom Block said...

This is probably a good place to post this--it's William K. Everson's program notes for hundreds of silent and early talkie movies:

http://www.nyu.edu/projects/wke/notes.htm

The guy was like Leonard Maltin, but with good taste.

Jan said...

"What I remember about the '60s is that every time I got to liking a musician he died. And every time I got to thinking here's a person who can make the world a better place, somebody went out and shot him."

Ah, but at least in those days, we had people who *tried* to make the world a better place. They seem awfully thin on the ground these days, though we seem to have no fewer of the shooting types.

Flickhead said...

I believe it's a subjective issue.

35 years ago, the man who took me through 1930s RKO and 1940s Warners told me he didn't feel "right" with anything made from the '50s on.

A blog recently reviewed Abel Ferrara's Body Snatchers in comparison to the Don Siegel Invasion of... but found the older film difficult to relate to. A guy in his thirties, he said Siegel's looked and sounded like something out of Pleasantville.

I believe the issue can be generational, or one that has to do with whatever the writer is comfortable with. I know people who ID Sean Connery as James Bond but refuse to consider any of the subsequent actors who played that role. I have a hard time convincing them that, of them all, Timothy Dalton was closest to Fleming's ideal. To them, Connery was it... mostly because he's the one they "grew up with."

It's like trying to convince someone raised on Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holms movies that Jeremy Brett was superior in that part. Which he most certainly was.

This discussion could go on for eons and never arrive at a satisfactory conclusion.

Jan said...

...Timothy Dalton was closest to Fleming's ideal.

...Jeremy Brett was superior [as Sherlock Holmes]. Which he most certainly was.


Thumbs up, two for two! But, yes, those who were acclimated to a different actor as "the one" just don't get it (especially if all they know are the screen portrayals).

The Siren said...

Flickhead, I'll tell you where Tom had me, and I rather sidestepped it in this post, I admit it. There are definitely aspects of old movies that absolutely cannot play the same way for me as they did on release. He brings up His Girl Friday, a movie we both love. One of my favorite lines is "Take Hitler and stick him in the funny papers!" Now, I'll argue that I got, and get, a wholly genuine laugh out of that. But my laughter can't possibly be the same as laughing at that line when the man was actually in power. Ditto "So they call me Concentration Camp Erhardt," a line that might not have been funny to me at all in a theater in 1942.

The Siren said...

David E, all right, all right! I will watch Zodiac! I *promise.* I'll feel too guilty now and besides everybody knows I've got it so if I just return it, it will be like admitting I've got a problem...

Gloria, I kind of love that theory. I will have to ponder it.

Vanwall, I think we had totally simpatico formative film experiences. Curling up on the couch, by myself (a rare experience) with an old movie is an instant gateway to the past for me.

Tom, the 1950s are definitely a great decade in film, no question. I have a coffee-table book, in French, called Les Annees Eblouissantes (The Dazzling Years), that covers the experience of being in postwar France and suddenly getting flooded with all the films missing during the Occupation. Now there's an experience to envy, sitting in a theater in Paris and getting hit with everything you've missed for five or six years. The authors talk about the resulting impact on French filmmaking in particular.

Michael C said...

Siren, what you wrote resonated with me on a number of levels. Each year since I've attended my local international film festival here in Melbourne, I've found that my conduit to connecting back into the greater world of cinephilia, after gorging myself on the latest and greatest, is to solely watch films prior to 1960. I get this yearning, a craving, for a 30's comedy, a 40's melodrama, a 50's Western. It's as if I need this in order to go through a cinematic equivalent of detoxification. No - not a detox, that implies that all the festival films have filled me with toxic sludge that needs to be stripped from my eyeballs....it's almost as if the craving I get to watch something pre-60's is a means to re-calibrate my film-viewing-self, to re-balance and re-tune myself.
After this year's festival I watched Heaven Can Wait and Unfaithfully Yours for the first time, and re-watched My Man Godfrey, as my girlfriend had never seen it before (I'm getting her hooked on pre-50's comedies, which is great considering she usually finds my viewing choices disagreeable - "what the hell did you just make me watch?" is a regular heart-warming comment). seeing these films felt UTTERLY perfect - they satisfied me and cleansed me in a way no other film could have done at that moment. And I don't really know why, but i don't really care.
Nostalgia cannot be the issue here - it makes no sense to use the term 'nostalgia' when pre-60's films never factored in my childhood film viewing. My first 1930's film experiences only occured in my twenties, and most of what I've seen has occurred in the past eight years, in my thirties. Eras do not matter - these films feel so alive to me when I watch them. They talk to me - even literally! I just saw Lubitsch's film One Hour With You this week, and knock me sideways but Maurice Chevalier is actually having a little chat with me!

I like to travel the ENTIRE map of cinema, finding new little places to visit. But it seems that these days people only want to visit the same places over and over again. We cinephiles watch these films in order to champion travel destinations that people are ignoring, or don't even know about. Like you said, Siren, "this movie needs me."

Being a perennial late-starter, (hey, this always keeps me young, or so I like to think)I've only just started on wide world of online cinephilia, and have really enjoyed reading your posts, but this recent post, Siren, is brilliant. Thanks.

Michael C said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
The Siren said...

Nora, I had you pegged as at least one commenter who was going to get the Shreveport/Abilene reference. Did you also ride the wrong way into Juarez? I am certainly capable of nostalgia for things in my personal past. I can't watch Desperately Seeking Susan or Hannah and Her Sisters without getting all misty over the city as it was when I moved here. This despite my knowing the downside, like the morning I woke up and followed a trail of blood down six flights of stairs, from some guy who was wounded (either shot or stabbed, the building grapevine had both versions) and decided to visit his girlfriend before doing something dull like calling an ambulance.

The Siren said...

Cliff: "I find it's very often finding that people then were at heart the same as people now. It's that sameness drawing across the decades which draws me in and adds that little bit of amazement that a classic usually carries over a modern."

Oh, I LOVE that. It's so, so true. I never had any real trouble identifying with people in old movies, in fact that was part of why I loved them so. And even if they were nothing like me, they were how I wanted to be.

The Siren said...

Jacqueline, I swear I'm going to post about Jean Arthur again (I did do History Is Made at Night) just to please you and Tonio, who I haven't seen around here lately.

Beveridge, I will need a pronunciation guide for that one too.

Fatbotmgirl, thank you so much for mentioning William Powell as one of the real men. I sometimes see him described as fey and it always makes me take to my bed with a sick headache.

The Siren said...

Jan, I try to stay optimistic; there's still people out there, but they are having a hard time of late. And, for the record, while Basil Rathbone is a much sexier Holmes to me (I just find Basil sexy, what can I say), Brett is better overall. There, I just confessed a preference for something modern. There must be others. I shall ponder.

Michael C., I am tickled to death to be read in Melbourne. I think most cinephiles need balance; I did feel better after seeing the NYFF, like "oh look at all the great stuff that's still out there!" I just needed to go back to my natural habitat. There's no place like home. And every movie you mention is a huge favorite of mine; I adore Unfaithfully Yours and when I encounter people who find it weak Sturges I don't get it. To me it's hilarious.

Ben Alpers said...

Great movies are great movies, whether they were made in 1925 or last year. I probably watch more older movies than newer movies, but I can't honestly say that movies made during my lifetime (i.e. since 1965) in general speak to me either less or more than movies made before I was born.

Sort of apropos of this topic (as well as the last one), I showed BLACK NARCISSUS to one of my classes last night, projecting the new BluRay onto a big screen. Wow. Just wow.

Also: just noticed that Borzage's MOONRISE has shown up on Netflix instant view. I fear the print will stink, but this is currently on my list of films whose absence from DVD is most criminal.

So at this moment, with those two flix in my head, the late 1940s feel kind of special to me....

Donald said...

I wonder how much of our period attachment is tied to our gaining a sense of self-awareness?

Like you, the movies I watched most when I was younger were the Saturday and Sunday morning films of the 30's and 40's, and my appreciation for them closely parallels my growing sense of who I wanted to be "when I grew up."  These films taught me life lessons I considered worthy of remembrance, and just as I incorporated those lessons, it's also as if I've somehow bound the period to my psychological identity.  I feel more "at home" in these films than in any other cinematic period as they are, in a strange way, like extended family members that helped shape me into the person I've become.  

The tragic part about this, however, is that the past often feels more meaningful to me now than the present.

Nora said...

Si Siren, but to visit Juarez today would require Emperor Maximilian and his army.

Jan said...

Nora: Poor Max didn't do so very well even in his day. I think faced by the chaos Mexico is descending into now would be beyond even the Foreign Legion (then or now) to adequately deal with...

Noel Vera said...

On Zodiac--if Fincher's movies are all about lonely people trying to connect, wasn't the climactic moment in Zodiac a moment of connection, however repressed, and couldn't it count as one of his rare films with an on his terms happy ending (the way The Social Network isn't)?

Siren, if you ever get the chance, please, try your kids on Studio Ghibli. Miyazaki's Spirited Away, Castle in the Sky, Nausicaa, Takahata's My Neighbor the Yamadas--they speak to me and mine more clearly than Pixar ever did.

gmoke said...

Don't forget "My Neighbor Totoro" and Miyazaki's injunction on watching the same films over and over again. Once a year, perhaps, is OK he said or so I've read.

My filmic education was the Early Show and Million Dollar Movie, Picture for a Sunday Afternoon and all the other TV programs that mined the back catalogs of Hollywood to fill innumerable hours. Watching Dana Andrews in "The Purple Heart" took on a whole nother meaning after seeing a Japanese film called, if memory serves, "Three Comrades," about a heroic platoon fighting in China. Then I realized that the same film was made by both sides of the Good War.

It's good movies I like but getting DVDs from the library I find that I'm shocked by the vulgarity in "She's Out of My League," a modern sex comedy that is also kinda sweet despite the gross jokes and outright sexism, and then confused by the admiring attitude to Edward G Robinson as a gambler with a lucky streak. His best friend is played by Jimmy Cagney, in the only film these two made together, "Smart Money." There's a lovely bit of pantomime by Cagney announcing the arrival of a supposed femme fatale and a bygone world that had completely different rules. One shot of a 1930s cityscape that looks like Wm Cameron Menzies had designed New York.

I like the range of different worlds available throughout the hundred plus years of film. There's a wildness to the silent "Woman in the Moon" that couldn't be duplicated today and a freshness to Buster Keaton's work that amazes me still (and inspired Jackie Chan).

In old movies, there are real grown-ups and adults. Hard to find that on the screen today. "Michael Clayton" was one recent film that had at least the feeling that it wasn't talking down to the audience but addressing us eye to eye, a rare example.

Film is magic, motion pictures, moving images of people and places and things that I may never see in real life. I know I've seen a really good movie when I walk out of the theater and am still seeing with the eyes of the director. Sometimes that feeling can last for hours and be recalled for decades. I don't get that feeling much with modern films. With Hollywood's commercial films, more and more I get vulgarity and mean-spiritedness ("Wanted" or "The Losers" for example), a rollercoaster ride with cardboard characters. There seems to be more meat with older films and, even when there isn't, the time travel experience still has interest.

gmoke said...

Don't forget "My Neighbor Totoro" and Miyazaki's injunction on watching the same films over and over again. Once a year, perhaps, is OK he said or so I've read.

My filmic education was the Early Show and Million Dollar Movie, Picture for a Sunday Afternoon and all the other TV programs that mined the back catalogs of Hollywood to fill innumerable hours. Watching Dana Andrews in "The Purple Heart" took on a whole nother meaning after seeing a Japanese film called, if memory serves, "Three Comrades," about a heroic platoon fighting in China. Then I realized that the same film was made by both sides of the Good War.

It's good movies I like but getting DVDs from the library I find that I'm shocked by the vulgarity in "She's Out of My League," a modern sex comedy that is also kinda sweet despite the gross jokes and outright sexism, and then confused by the admiring attitude to Edward G Robinson as a gambler with a lucky streak. His best friend is played by Jimmy Cagney, in the only film these two made together, "Smart Money." There's a lovely bit of pantomime by Cagney announcing the arrival of a supposed femme fatale and a bygone world that had completely different rules. One shot of a 1930s cityscape that looks like Wm Cameron Menzies had designed New York.

I like the range of different worlds available throughout the hundred plus years of film. There's a wildness to the silent "Woman in the Moon" that couldn't be duplicated today and a freshness to Buster Keaton's work that amazes me still (and inspired Jackie Chan).

In old movies, there are real grown-ups and adults. Hard to find that on the screen today. "Michael Clayton" was one recent film that had at least the feeling that it wasn't talking down to the audience but addressing us eye to eye, a rare example.

Film is magic, motion pictures, moving images of people and places and things that I may never see in real life. I know I've seen a really good movie when I walk out of the theater and am still seeing with the eyes of the director. Sometimes that feeling can last for hours and be recalled for decades. I don't get that feeling much with modern films. With Hollywood's commercial films, more and more I get vulgarity and mean-spiritedness ("Wanted" or "The Losers" for example), a rollercoaster ride with cardboard characters. There seems to be more meat with older films and, even when there isn't, the time travel experience still has interest.

gmoke said...

Don't forget "My Neighbor Totoro" and Miyazaki's injunction on watching the same films over and over again. Once a year, perhaps, is OK he said or so I've read.

My filmic education was the Early Show and Million Dollar Movie, Picture for a Sunday Afternoon and all the other TV programs that mined the back catalogs of Hollywood to fill innumerable hours. Watching Dana Andrews in "The Purple Heart" took on a whole nother meaning after seeing a Japanese film called, if memory serves, "Three Comrades," about a heroic platoon fighting in China. Then I realized that the same film was made by both sides of the Good War.

It's good movies I like but getting DVDs from the library I find that I'm shocked by the vulgarity in "She's Out of My League," a modern sex comedy that is also kinda sweet despite the gross jokes and outright sexism, and then confused by the admiring attitude to Edward G Robinson as a gambler with a lucky streak. His best friend is played by Jimmy Cagney, in the only film these two made together, "Smart Money." There's a lovely bit of pantomime by Cagney announcing the arrival of a supposed femme fatale and a bygone world that had completely different rules. One shot of a 1930s cityscape that looks like Wm Cameron Menzies had designed New York.

I like the range of different worlds available throughout the hundred plus years of film. There's a wildness to the silent "Woman in the Moon" that couldn't be duplicated today and a freshness to Buster Keaton's work that amazes me still (and inspired Jackie Chan).

In old movies, there are real grown-ups and adults. Hard to find that on the screen today. "Michael Clayton" was one recent film that had at least the feeling that it wasn't talking down to the audience but addressing us eye to eye, a rare example.

Film is magic, motion pictures, moving images of people and places and things that I may never see in real life. I know I've seen a really good movie when I walk out of the theater and am still seeing with the eyes of the director. Sometimes that feeling can last for hours and be recalled for decades. I don't get that feeling much with modern films. With Hollywood's commercial films, more and more I get vulgarity and mean-spiritedness ("Wanted" or "The Losers" for example), a rollercoaster ride with cardboard characters. There seems to be more meat with older films and, even when there isn't, the time travel experience still has interest.

KC said...

I don't have a brilliant comment--just yes to everything you said. Your writing makes me grin so hard my cheeks ache.

Vanwall said...

Actually, KC, that was pretty darn brilliant! Well said.

Sheila O'Malley said...

How I relate to every beautiful word you have written here. Weeks go by without a bit of color showing on my television because the majority of the movies I watch are in black and white. I've always been this way. It's not nostalgia, not really - but you have put it into far better words than I ever could. It's how I grew up, certainly, although I don't remember my parents "showing" me movies or trying to dictate my taste. I just was always scouring the TV Guide for screwball comedies playing in afternoon double-features and things like that.

However, I did love Zodiac, too. My favorite film of that year. I'm a sucker for a good police procedural.

DavidEhrenstein said...

It's not nostalgai at all, Michael C. You'd have to have actually seen those films when they came out in the 30's. Enjoying My Man Godfrey today is stepping back into that past -- like a Time Machine.

Couldn't agree more about Michel Clayton, gsmoke. "I am Shiva the God of Death" has become one of my all-time favorite movie lines. And I love the film's
Jean-Pierre Melville ending -- Clooney in the cab alone with his thoughts. That scene alone is some of the best actig he's ever done. Needless to say I love the shot of Tilda fainting when she's been found out.

gmoke said...

"Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds."
J Robert Oppenheimer on the first atomic bomb test.

Sorry about the multiple postings of the same comment. I blame blogger.

VP81955 said...

Welcome to the wonderful world of cinephilia (pre-1960 version), Michael C.

Does Australia have a TCM or similar channel? (Of course, even if it does, it doesn't guarantee optimal classic movie viewing, as I find TCM channels outside the U.S. have relatively small libraries to access due to film rights issues and such.)

As a Lombard fan, I'm glad your lady got to see "My Man Godfrey" -- and I hope she will see many more of the gems that Carole and her friends made during the 1930s. (Especially the pre-Code stuff.)

Simon said...

If I ever have kids, I'm raising them like you are.

Three...I don't know. Very, very casual. But I don't really have a preference for a specific time period. There's always going to be shit movies, even in Fred Astaire's filmography (the horror...)

But you're right. Those obscure B-movies of the twenties deserve more face time.

Trish said...

Siren, it's Hallowe'en. Perfect for Zodiac-watching. I couldn't get it out of my mind after first seeing it.

Someone may have already alluded to this, but I wonder if black and white television has been an influence for some of us. In my house we didn't have a colour television until 1971, so by then I was too far gone as a category 3. If a psychiatrist told me I was longing for the past -- my past -- well, I don't think I'd agree. Calling it nostalgia is insulting. The truth is, those films were made before television, computers and hand-held devices splintered our attention span. And frankly, story and character were far more important to filmmakers then than they are now. There is value in that.

And old movies do get into your soul. I am particularly drawn to films made a few years before my birth that take place in New York, a city I have never visited. Yet whenever I go up the stairs to Roseland with Marty or pace Penn Station with Davey Gordon in Killer's Kiss, I feel weirdly that I have been there before.

Who among us would stake our livelihood on a single truckload of apples, as did the protagonist of Thieves' Highway? Yet this film's profound faith in the future is always timely, a reminder to keep it real. And who doesn't empathize with Bogie in The Treasure of Sierra Madre, after he becomes the very thing he denied he could ever be. Now, the gals of the '30s -- the secretaries, the showgirls and the madcap heiresses who stay out all night, get hooked on drugs, or just plain try to get a man -- they are in a class by themselves and there are few modern equivalents.

What a great conversation...

Buttermilk Sky said...

Late to the party as usual, I read your post and wonderful comments with joy. "Robert Mitchum, William Powell, and all those men who were really men" is right. Reminded me of a comment from Norman Lloyd: "Movie stars used to be men. Today, they're boys."

For those who depend on TCM "like it's some kind of weird food" (to quote James Baldwin on his discovery of books), this Monday they examine the pre-history of movies with documentaries about Edison and Melies. I'll be firing up the coal-powered VCR.

I come from a non-movie-going family, so movies and TV were always intermingled for me. I once saw "Gone With the Wind" on a movie screen and it just looked...cheesy. And sounded racist. But whenever it's shown on TV I can't turn it off. Anything in black and white, especially from the early 1930s, I'm transfixed by the clothes, the decor, the slang, and the actors. I'd rather watch Warner Baxter than Tom Cruise any time. Emm, this is what you have to look forward to. You've been warned.

May I steal your definition of nostalgia?

Douglas Adams said...

I love her eyes

The Siren said...

Ben, the Moonrise appearance is such good news. I await Desire in pious patience...

Donald, I think you are on to something there. It is certainly true that certain books I read in childhood are more imprinted in my memory than things I read last month. That holds true for movies as well. I wasn't in a theater in 1940 looking at His Girl Friday, but I think my first experience of it, propped up on pillows in my parents' bedroom and LMAO, counts too.

Noel, I have to confess to something of a block with anime; I never seem to connect with any of them, including Spirited Away, but I keep trying.

Gmoke, the trend toward toilet humor in current comedies usually leaves me cringing. There has to be a happy medium between Joe Breen having a hissy fit if the bathroom door is even open and all the peepee-caca stuff I keep enduring. I love a good witty line in a comedy; it always makes me laugh harder than vulgarity. I'm a bit prissy. But I wear my prissiness with pride.

The Siren said...

KC, thanks so much.

Sheila and Trish, I did see Zodiac and I liked it very much. It's a mood piece as much as anything and I definitely dug the mood, which surprised me, as my prior experience with Fincher (Social Network aside) was that mood he left me in was BAD.

Simon, I need to show them MORE. A couple of times they have allowed as how they don't much like B&W. This cannot stand.

Buttermilk Sky, always glad to see you. Just about the only thing Dorothy Rabinowitz of the WSJ ever wrote that made me want to cheer was a long-ago column on "people who cannot live without Turner Classic Movies." One touch of TCM makes the whole world kin.

jim emerson said...

As someone who programmed a Jean Arthur film series (of double-bills!) in college (circa 1980), I am intimately acquainted with the feelings you so beautifully describe. I cannot recommend a great many films from 2010 (though you're ahead of me with those NYFF titles) -- but, yes, "Zodiac" was made way back in 2007 (for those who are "nostalgic" for films made in the latter part of the Bush II presidency) -- about the '60s & '70s. As DE points out, it gets a lot of mileage out of the concept of distance and communication in the pre-digital age (I called it an "analog film" -- which, in this case, actually means something). Enjoy. And then watch "Easy Living" (1937) again.

The Siren said...

Jim, so delighted to see you in my comments. I'll just point out that for me, in terms of movies, 2007 was practically last week. And oh lord how I love Easy Living.

Tanuki said...

Apologies for commenting the very first time I read the blog - I got here via Jim Emerson's link - I'm less a film buff than a books and music buff.

But what you write here really strikes a chord with me, precisely because it transcends film fandom. With all due respect to Godard and Arthur S., I think that this same presentist (for lack of a more concise term) bias does exist in literary and music circles. My impression (and it's no doubt colored by my love for old books and music) is that most people today serious about pop music are interested primarily in what's new, and would have great difficulty relating to, say, Louis Armstrong or Peggy Lee. Few book bloggers, it seems to me, make time for Dickens, or could conceive of reading, for example, Beowulf for pleasure...

Love what you say about nostalgia. The word doesn't begin to describe what it feels like to approach people from the past as equals.

Jandy said...

I'm extremely late to this post, but I'm really glad I decided to read it rather than simply skip over it in my much-neglected Google Reader.

Your description of your childhood growing up watching older movies could be mine, as well - my mom was suspicious of anything made after Easy Rider (the film she claimed stopped her from going to the cinema forever, though she went multiple times a week growing up in the '40s and '50s) and had me watch the Technicolor musicals and comedies she remembered rather than current films (I grew up in the '80s and '90s). I too never watched an R-rated film until I was over 17, and took my mom's classic movie love to even further extremes, hitting the 1920s '30s and foreign films with much more relish than she ever did.

Now I watch and enjoy just about everything, but when I'm feeling down or need something familiar and comfortable, I head to Astaire and Rogers, or Humphrey Bogart, or Barbara Stanwyck, or yes, the beloved Jean Arthur. It's not necessarily nostalgia (for a time I was never in?) or a longing for a simpler time (which doesn't exist), but simply that the rhythms and the styles and the moods of those films feel like home.

So yeah, allow me to join you in Cat3, if you will.

ghulam sarwar said...
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brookesboy said...
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brookesboy said...

For me, old movies are pure magic and instill a sense of wonder that contemporary cinema only stumbles upon once in a blue moon. I worship at the altar of TCM; without it, I would be bereft. My obsession with old movies began as a kid after seeing The Towering Inferno at the theater. I was so entranced by the luminous presence of Jennifer Jones that I hunted down any of her films that were shown on TV. This led to my admiration of Greer Garson, Myrna Loy and Bette Davis. Another blogger mentioned atmosphere, and I couldn't agree more. There simply is an ethereal yet visceral impact conjured by the works of Wyler, Ford, Astaire, Davis, Garbo, Lubitsch that cannot be matched by the films of this generation. It's also true that children are extremely susceptible to the outside world, and when an impact is felt it is profound. I think nostalgia might be defined as something you discovered you were always meant to love.

brookesboy said...
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brookesboy said...
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Rohit Raina said...

The current state of cinema is sad... what's with hideous movies earning billions and billions.. only the other day I read this rather discouraging post about movies which leak absurdity towards us: http://www.leisuremartini.com/5-bad-movies-hit-box-office/

Mackenzie Carpenter said...

Vivien Leigh.
That is all.

Mackenzie Carpenter said...

Also: in 1969, when I was 14, I would set the alarm for 2 a.m. so I could get up and watch Carole Lombard and John Barrymore in "Twentieth Century" on WOR-TV. I was FOURTEEN. I have since tried to interest my own three children in classic cinema, to no avail, but it's still early...

This blogger so totally gets me. Thank you, Self-Styled Siren, for being you.